Eels reveal cigar box of song jewels
By JOSEF WOODARD
It seems safe to report that Tuesday’s Eels concert was the first time in the Lobero Theatre history that a show’s “opening act” was the screening of Russian “stop motion” cartoon.
The charming little half-hour animation piece, lined with bittersweet music not unlike the live music to come, was a bit beyond the realm of the expected.
Then again, the unexpected is par for the course with the groups called Eels, essentially the handiwork of the artist known simply as E (born Mark Oliver Everett).
Pop stardom, per se, may have eluded Eels (not “the Eels” as the band is often called) but E/Eels has secured a devoted cult following for his inventive and always melodic anti-pop.
He wields sardonic humor without venom and mocks conventional trappings of the pop life, but E can’t hide the fact that he’s grounded in old-fashioned musical virtues.
The timing of his local appearance — presented as an added attraction in the “Sings Like Hell” concert series — was auspicious.
This was the first show anywhere of a tour following the recent release of his masterful and long labored-over double-CD, “Blinking Lights and Other Revelations.”
For the sake of keeping tabs on his local history, E later recalled that his last appearance in Santa Barbara was in 1992, opening for Tori Amos, during which he answered a heckler’s request for “Free Bird” by actually playing the kitschy Lynyrd Skynyrd classic.
He joked that this “Free Bird incident” was notorious enough to keep him outside our city limits all these years.
Let the record show that Tuesday night’s return to town represented another case of the Lobero itself being a highly sympathetic supportive element: It’s hard to imagine a riper venue for E’s new evocative chamber pop song cycle.
Skinny and bespectacled, and looking like a confederate bookkeeper, E came out dressed in a gray suit, sporting a cane, and occasionally puffing a stogie.
His band this time around involves a string quartet and two bandmates who pinch hit on several instruments, including autoharp, pedal steel and a trash can and suitcase acting as “drums.”
The string quartet added a lovely touch, although the arrangements were generally too simplistic, reducing the four musicians to one big chordal instrument.
A lover of shifting instrumental colors, E moved between guitar, the delicate toy piano-like sound of the clavichord and an upright piano in saloon-style proximity to being in tune.
He knows well the power of an effect, and of using sounds and ideas outside of pop and rock norms.
As E jested, this concert was a warm-up show, a rehearsal in public: “We’re like a baby doe, uncertain, wobbly, and still wet.”
Still wet or not, they made some beautiful, sensitive and left-of-normal music together.
And they had a substantial body of work to stretch out on. With “Blinking Lights and Other Revelations,” certainly one of the finest pop albums of the year, E may have painted his masterpiece, finding ways to balance his romantic restlessness and rubbery wordplay in a musical mosaic and song cycle of more than 30 short songs and song fragments, many of which made up the concert here.
After opening the set with the gentle instrumental “Theme From Blinking Lights,” E flexed his smoky-toned voice on “Dust of Ages,” one of many songs from the new album bearing some resemblance to early Peter Gabriel.
Highlights of the album and the concert included new tunes about conquering the pull of dark spirits, such as “Suicide Life” and “Losing Streak” and the simple solo folksy plaint of “Railroad Man” is balanced by semirocking numbers like “From Which I Came/A Magic World.”
Beyond the pressing subject of his new album, E dipped into his older discography — five titles strong — for the title track of “Souljacker,” and, from the 2000 album “Daisies of the Galaxy,” the country lope of “I Like Birds” and “Flyswatter.”
He broke the spell of mostly low-key ballads from the new album with the quirky rocker “Dog Faced Boy,” played with a rocking distorted guitar combined with the unlikely drum set substitute of maracas.
If E’s songs can be surprisingly introspective and melancholy at times, humor is never far behind, and he uses it a defense mechanism to defuse the brooding seriousness lining many of his songs.
Even on “Things the Grandchildren Should Know,” the last of several encores and the denouement of his new album, he mixes dark and light, wit and warmth, and delivers universal truths turned on their ear.
E gets away with that feat handily, one of many other good reasons to invite him back to our fair city, sooner than later.
DAVID BAZEMORE PHOTO
The artist known as E (Mark Oliver Everett) leads Eels in a performance at the Lobero Theatre on Tuesday as part of the “Sings Like Hell” series.